Walking In Uninvited at a House Where You Do Not Live: Mortlach Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 22 Years and Bottled at 46% ABV by Alchemist

14 - 1-5Being an inveterate drinker of fine Scotch whiskeys bottled by independents, I’ve grown accustomed to spirits matured in a manner the distillery itself might frown upon. Macallans and Aberlours aged entirely in ex-bourbon casks, for example; or, to the contrary, heavily peated Bunnahabhains or Caol Ilas deeply influenced by years at rest in a sherry butt. My last review parsed an 11 year old Mortlach aged entirely in an ex-bourbon hogshead – I liked it a great deal – and here we have another Mortlach, also matured with no influence of sherry casks but for twice as long, 22 years, and from an independent bottler I’d neither seen nor heard of before buying this bottle: Alchemist.

Here’s what I read about this bottler on scotchwhisky.net: The driving force behind the company is Gordon Wright who not only has significant experience in the world of single malt whisky – with his family connections to the Springbank distillery and, latterly, his involvement with the “re-birth” of Bruichladdich – but who also has had the opportunity over the years to gain considerable insight into some of the world’s other classic spirits.

Springbank is, bar none, my favorite distillery, and “latterly” I’ve become quite fond of Bruichladdich, especially of their Cuvee series (thank you, Dave). I’m also a big fan of Mortlach. So it’s safe to assume Gordon Wright and his Alchemist label have put something together here I may enjoy a great deal. Let’s see…

The Whisky

It’s Mortlach, and it isn’t. And what more there is to say about that, I say below. Here’s a great overview of the Mortlach Distillery from the indispensable Malt Madness site: http://www.maltmadness.com/whisky/mortlach.html

The Nose

The first aromas to pleasure my eager olfactory bulbs are clean, dry malt and sawdust. And Macoun apple slices – or maybe a grainier apple like a Red Delicious – and a bit of honey.

What is somewhat baffling here is the familiarity of this profile – and I’m not talking about other Mortlachs. What the nose on this reminds me of is Glenfarclas – something between or in the vicinity of the 17 or 21 year old distillery bottlings.

Unfortunatly, I remain in medias res here, still transitioning from MA to NY, and I don’t have any Glenfarclas open in my temporary living quarters. I do, however, have an open bottle of Blackadder’s 23 year old Blairfindy from their Raw Cask series and ‘Blairfindy’ is just a legally necessary misnomer for Glanfarclas (the Grants, the family that has owned Glenfarclas for generations, hale from Blairfindy Farm and are sometimes referred to as the Blairfindy Grants).

Pouring a dram of this Blairfindy 23 (48%) and then nosing it side by side with the Alchemist Mortlach 22 (46%), the similarity is indeed uncanny.

So, if this smells like a good Glenfarclas, what’s the point? Why not just go out and buy the decidedly luscious and elegant 21 year old Glenfarclas for about the same price? Or, for that matter, why not go out and buy this Blackadder 23 year old Blairfindy – if you can find it?

Hhmmm…

Closer attention does reveal some differences. For one thing, the Blairfindy has a faint warm floral character to the nose that this Mortlach does not exhibit. And the Alchemist Mortlach has a very modest suggestion of minty acetone that the Blairfindy does not possess. And some young and savory vegetable scent – I’m thinking salted celery. But, still, the similarities are both arresting and curious.

I am a vocal fan of the Glenfarclas distillery and have often remarked that the olfactory and taste profiles of one of the better examples of this distillery’s juice – the 17, 21 or 25 year olds, say – constitute for me the Platonic Ideal of single malt Scotch whisky, the immutable and eternal form or idea of what a single malt Scotch whisky is, and the standard or benchmark all other single malt Scotch whiskeys could be thought of as variations of…

That’s just me, of course. If my thoughts, expressed, sound like babbling rhetorical poppycock to you, that doesn’t mean I am not, myself, convinced by them.

All of which is to say, I very much like the nose on the better Glenfarclases and thus am drawn to consider the very similar nose on this 22 year old Mortlach bottled by Alchemist as something to admire and, thus, to rate highly.

On the other hand, I have never before had the experience of the juice from one distillery reminding me so much of the juice of another. In a side by side comparison! Yes, they are from the same basic region of Scotland, both from the County of Banff, in fact, but individuality is the be-all and end-all, the raison d’etre, the signature, fingerprint, aim and rationale of each and every distillery in Scotland. Redundancy cannot, should not and will not be tolerated. So, from this perspective, how can I possibly give high marks to the nose on this Alchemist echo of Glenfarclas called Mortlach?

Let’s be perfectly clear: I am not saying I find the products of these two estimable distilleries, Mortlach and Glenfarclas, compromisingly similar. I do not. All I am saying is that this one very limited Alchemist bottling of Mortlach is compromisingly similar to some of my favorite bottles of Glenfarclas. And thus, despite enjoying it, my score must reflect my bewildered disappointment. 18/25

The Palate

This will be a quicker study, I promise.

My first impression upon pouring this potion over my tongue is – well, if you can imagine biting into a thin-walled hollow globe of granular sugar that has been filled with viscous clover honey, that’s it.

In the second wave, it’s the unsullied malt and the apples, but this time the apples have been baked.

There’s a hint of chocolate and a bit of banana confection.

And there is woody oak, just enough to remind the palate that this was aged in a refill ex-bourbon cask for 22 years, but not so much as to suggest over-aging. Oddly, considering its age and years of maturation in American oak, there is a noticeable lack of spiciness.

All of which adds up to a good, pleasant, even interesting palate, but nothing particularly distinguished, sophisticated or refined, nor anything that sets this whisky above its peers in any significant way. 20/25

The Finish

Finally! If your palate is anything like mine, the finish on this whisky will not disappoint. It is big and bold with lots of malt and honey and baked apples, now with cinnamon, and, for the first time, overripe honeydew melon. And, pulling this all together is the pleasurably embracing sting of oaky barrel tannins, like a scratchy, itchy, tight wool dress being zipped up around the fruity sweetness and spice. Here, in the finish, for the first time with this particular potion, I know I am drinking Mortlach. 23/25

Balance/Structure

This is tough. In one sense, there is a pleasant arc to this elixir, an unbroken, arching, descending line that runs with nary a twist or turn through the nose and palate, and which then grows bold in the finish. And I suspect the cut on this was rather tight based on the oily, just-this-side-of-bloated mouth feel.* And this whisky gives a relatively firm sense of structure as well, which could be the result of a well-chosen cask.

The lack of individuality in the nose, however – with the nose being this particular whisky’s most complex, most interesting facet – is a real problem.

In my heart, in my whisky-drinking memory cache and in the summary of my senses, I’d say everything about the experience of savoring and sipping this whisky leads to the conclusion that it is a good but not a great whisky – which, pardon me, is something I expected from an independently bottled, bucksy 22 year old from one of my favorite Scottish distilleries. So what we have here is a bottling that is at once good and disappointing. 18/25

Total points for this whisky: 79 **

* When I first opened this bottle, I was not impressed, the experience being one of bloated honey sweetness and soft, simple, meandering malt followed by sawdust and sour tannins, much like some younger, overrated, bloated-with-hyperbole Dalmore distillery bottlings I’ve had. This, and many an example like it, should caution each and every one of us never to pass final judgment on a whisky the day or even the first week it is opened. Good whisky needs time to breathe.

** However… Let’s say I had never before tasted a good Glenfarclas – what score might I have given this whisky then? My rating of the nose would certainly have been higher, maybe +3 points. And that would have influenced my rating of balance and structure as well, by +2 points perhaps, meaning I might have given this whisky a score of 84 points if I hadn’t found its lack of individuality so disappointing.

Dizygotic: The Exclusive Malts’ 2003 Speyside 10 Year Old Single Cask, Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Speyside-10-Year-2003-from-The-Exclusive-MaltsPlease read through to the end: This moody tonic receives two different scores based on two different samples…

Calling this whisky “Speyside” rather than naming the distillery it came from has led to a bit of speculation online (and, as you’ll see, to further speculation below). There are a few Speyside distilleries that won’t allow the use of their names by independent bottlers: Glenfarclas and Glenfiddich, for example. I have seen Glenfarclas suggested as the source of this Exclusive Malts “Speyside” but that hardly seems possible given the typical Glenfarclas profile with it’s warm full body and refined bready fruitcake character. I’m going to hazard a different guess: Balvenie. I’m not the first to make this guess. At an Exclusive Malts tasting held at Norfolk Wine & Spirits nearly a year ago, the proprietor, Bikram Singh, responded to his first sip with that name: Balvenie. And I concur. If you can deconstruct the 15 year old Balvenie Single Barrel in your mind (having a dram of this expression in your glass, of course), imagining what the nose and palate might be like without any sherry cask influence, with considerably less bloated sweetness and with the ABV turned up from about 48% to more than 56%, it isn’t hard to understand this Exclusive Malts offering as the whisky that would result. I’ve spent many an evening with favorite bottles of Glenfarclas (17, 21, 25) and I don’t find the whisky under review here reminiscent of that distillery whatsoever. Then again, imagining Glenfarclas with no influence of sherry cask maturation is for all intents and purposes impossible, so I suppose that feasibility must remain open. Nonetheless, I’m sticking with my first guess: Balvenie.

Or am I? There is another intriguing, but highly unlikely, possibility: The Speyside Distillery, a very small affair on the upper section of the River Spey that produces less than 160,000 gallons of whisky annually. I have never had a drop of juice from that whisky maker, but the descriptions I’ve found sound similar to this Exclusive Malts single cask. Michael Jackson describes Drumguish, which was an NAS bottling from the Speyside Distillery, as “intense” with “jasmine” and a “slightly oily” body, “[a] creamy core” but with “dry (grassy) edges” – all of which, except for the grassy note, could be adjusted to fit with my take on the whisky here under review. And Charles McLean describes the palate on a distillery bottling of Speyside 12 Year Old as “richer and more full-bodied than you would expect from its restrained nose” – a description I could use, word for word, to portray this “Speyside” from Exclusive Malts.

The Whisky

Distilled April 14th 2003. Bottled September 2013 at an ABV of 56.3%. One of 296 bottles from a single cask. I have seen no official word on the type or size of cask used, but I have read that this whisky spent its entire ten years in an ex-bourbon hogshead and I suspect that’s true. Like all of this bottler’s offerings, this whisky is untainted by the misleading E150a caramel coloring and is un-chill-filtered.

Nose

I was having some trouble deciphering this one, so I looked at a couple of reviews online to find out what others had unraveled. One reviewer calls this whisky an example of “a classic sherry bomb”. I don’t get that, not at all. If this juice spent more than 10 minutes of it’s 10 year maturation in anything other than a (second fill?) ex-bourbon hogshead, I would be damned surprised. I find no sherry influence in this whisky whatsoever. What I do find most prominent on the nose is a clean, bright, hardy malt encased in a weave of rather sharp (French?) oak spices. Far below all that, I get some wildflower honey (i.e., not conspicuously sweet, as in some drier meads, which this is beginning in some ways to resemble on the nose) and, even farther out, like ghosts in a distant darkness, salt marsh reeds? a dusty shale-like flintiness? spilled, dried cherry juice on a just-opened package of high cloth-content copy paper? There is something distant but elusively floral as well – jasmine tea? withered carnations? The high ABV can be stabbing in the nostrils if you get too close, but I didn’t find that water did much to ameliorate this characteristic until it became too much water and washed the good away. What one can discern here is pleasant and varied, but, overall, this is a shielded, clenched and parsimonious nose that refuses to give much up. (20/25)

Palate

Well, now… This is where she divulges a few of her secrets – but only a few. The wonderfully silky, oily delivery displays that tight malted barley, a little less bright now, awash in an amalgam of light raisons, peach and cherry pits, less-than-identifiable savory elements and a touch of burnt caramel, all of it steeping in a light, thin sugar syrup. The spice is a constant after the first few seconds, but it rises along a gentle arc that never gets overpowering.

And that, for me at least, is all she wrote. She doesn’t do all that much but, what she does do, she does well – and she truly does nothing wrong. I should add, however, that a few of my friends and some reviewers refer to the palate on this whisky as cloyingly sweet and “ridiculously sweet,” as one friend described it. That was not my experience at all. Was my sample too old or too oxidized? I have no way of knowing; all I can do is review the sample I was sent. If I should have a chance to taste a fresh bottle of this potion anytime soon, I’ll write an update to this report [see the Addendum below]. (21/25)

Finish

A mouthwatering, long, slow-burning finish that spills raisons and dates across the tongue in a wash of not-really-very-sweet caramel and honey, all of this on a foundation of sturdy barley malt, savory spice and drying oak tannins that reach down into the chest with a bloom of searing, drying, slow-slow fading, high frequency alcohol. (21/25)

Balance/Structure

As an arc, this works – more or less. Thanks to the malt itself, there is a nice, tight, clean component that runs through the entire experience this whisky offers. The nose, though shielded and stingy, leads naturally enough to the palate – which has that wonderful silky delivery. The finish starts with great promise but ends with a slow-searing burn that won’t be to everyone’s liking. (20/25)

Total points for this sample of this whisky: 82

Many thanks to Sam Filmus at ImpEx Beverages and to Marina Hachaturova at Dime Group International for the sample.

Speyside-10-Year-2003-from-The-Exclusive-Malts
ADDENDUM:

Thanks to Bikram Singh (once again!), who had an open bottle of this whisky at his store, I did manage to get my hands on a fresh sample. There is a big difference between this and the sample I was sent. On the Nose, one gets an even more vibrant maltiness, a nice light honey, river rocks drying in the sun and some cinnamon and white pepper spice, though the alcohol is still stabbing the nostrils a bit (+2 points). On the Palate, the silky oleaginous delivery is still there and one now gets – especially with some water – baked apples, cinnamon and nutmeg, pear candy, light raisons and thin honey (+2 points). The Finish is much the same, but – with water, especially – sweeter, less burning, longer and more flavorful (+1 point). As for the Balance and Structure, I’d say the Structure remains much the same, dominated by a nice firm malt, but the Balance is improved because every step of the experience has been improved. Is this as sweet as my friends and others said? Well, it’s sweeter, but not ridiculously so, and the additional sweetness balances in pleasant equipoise with the spice, malt and tannins. (+2 points).

Total points for this sample of this whisky: 89

That’s a big difference!

Glenfarclas 17 Year Old – Like French-Kissing Angels

lzdxsIf the saints in heaven drink water, I suspect it tastes like Glenfarclas. Every dram I’ve drunk at every age I could find it – 10, 12, 17, 21, 25 years old – is a fluid variation on profundity and lucid wonder. Pour a sweet measure of Glenfarclas on your tongue and you’ll be convinced you just French-kissed an angel!

Is that exaggeration? No! Is it absurd? Maybe!

In my opinion, Glenfarclas, as a full range, provides the most tenaciously dependable and the most richly sensual, sensuous experience offered by the world of sherried Scotch single malt whiskey. Drinking a Glenfarclas of advanced age, say anything 17 years or beyond, is like drinking poetry, like drinking the voice of Maria Callas or Jussi Bjorling. The 10 and 12 year olds are Billie Holiday in a glass.

Here’s what Sir Thomas R. Dewar – who, with his brother John, built the Dewar’s Blended Scotch label to international renown – had to say of Glenfarclas back in 1912:

“Glenfarclas [is] the King of Whiskies and the Whisky of Kings. In its superiority it is something to drive the skeleton from the feast and paint landscapes in the brain of man. In it is to be found the sunshine and shadow that chased each other over the billowy cornfield, the hum of the bee, the hope of Spring, the breath of May, the carol of the lark, the distant purple heather in the mountain mist, and the wealth of autumn’s rich content, all golden with imprisoned light.”

I agree, to the extent my experience allows, with every word mister Dewar says.

Well, you might argue, the Glenfarclas Tom Dewar was drinking back in 1912 is surely not the same Glenfarclas that is now available to us.

And I would reply: That, friend, is the difference between the carol of the lark and French-kissing angels – which is to say, there is no difference at all!

Seriously, though, Glenfarclas has been a family business – in the same Grant family – for 177 years, and they are known as very traditional distillers. While there have certainly been variations in the sherry casks, say, or weather extremes, or in the moods of the master distillers over the years, Glenfarclas is one single malt that very probably does taste at least quite similar to the way it did 101 years ago: In other words, I feel confident that, if Tommy Dewar were here with me tonight, he would thoroughly enjoy, and recognize, the distillery character of the Glenfarclas I pour into his glass.

It has taken me 10 or more sessions over three weeks or so, and nearly an entire 750ml bottle, to feel the least bit of confidence in describing this artfully contained mastery of nature. Everything in this whisky is so well integrated, so closely and firmly knit, that parsing it almost doesn’t feel like the proper thing to do, as if I were crassly to strip a good lady bare to catalogue her charms in public.

But, for you, dear reader, I shall overcome this reluctance…

The color is pale copper, a summer evening’s gold.

The nose is honey thinned with watery almond oil exuding unhurried wafts of fine sherry. With roasted herbs and charred hazelnuts, perhaps. A bit of citrus oil and just the slightest percolation of smoke. From the far distance, a breeze blows in through a cluster of sappy young pine trees.

The palate flows elegantly forward with ginger-spiced honey balanced perfectly with a drying sherried maltiness. There is a very slight, but sure, pine-needley, resinous, herbal trace, as if a tiny drop of the Carthusian liqueur Chartreuse had discreetly snuck onto the palate. On top of that, and nearly as slight, is an iota or two of peppermint. And just the faintest memory trace of smoke.

Some darker fruits emerge in the finish – dates and figs – but that balance of savory sweet honey and sherried malt predominates, drying slowly with scintillating richness and sure elegance.

The overall impression is one of balance – of weight and light, of crispness and pungent depth, of structure and lusty richness, as if Verdi had completely re-written a Wagnerian finale and secreted it into fine sherry oak and ex-bourbon casks for seventeen long and gentle years.

Here’s my suggestion: Buy yourself a bottle, pour yourself a dram, let it cascade neat over the rim of your glass onto your eager and excited tongue, close your eyes, lean your head back, wiggle your tongue and let your imagination do the rest…

Subaru isn’t love – this is!